Mann Alive!

Ed Mann interview by Evil Prince

T'Mershi Duween, #62, January 1999

The Evil Prince chats with the dynamic (once he gets going) Ed Mann, an interview from LA recorded on April 21 1996.

Q: Let's start with your influences. Do you have any influence from the minimalistic school, like Steve Reich?

EM: Some, but not a lot. I'm not sure what you mean by minimalistic. To me it all blends together. Reich's is an important name, but I would say the most important name would be Jimi Hendrix. Just because of the ability to create sound and an experience with sound. It's maybe the thing that influenced me to become a percussionist, the ability to work with that much sound. It always occurred to me that, rather than to do it on guitar and come up through that tradition as he did which was so beautiful and unique, I would do it on percussion. It was maybe the same intention or spirit, but my instrument has never been guitar; it's always been percussion from when I was young. I was also influenced by Bach and Bartok as well, but I'm not a specialist in that music.

Q: How would you describe your own music stylistically?

EM: I guess you'd have to call it new-age-afro-pop-world-jazz or something. It has all those influences. I'm working more nowadays on just music for percussion. All types of music can be an influence. You hear something, it's an influence. It's all about how you take that and make music out of it. I've probably been exposed to a lot of stuff from different parts of the world and certainly the music of Steve Reich, John Cage, Harry Partch though I've never played it because his instruments are unique, Lou Harrison, Harold Budd, Jim Tenney. It all blends together for me. I think of minimalistic stuff as being Anton Webern because there's hardly anything going on.

Q: How would you describe the Repercussion Unit, because there aren't too many all-percussion groups about?

EM: Repercussion Unit grew from these other influences you're talking about: Cage and Partch ... And also the music of India and Western pop music. The approach was always to put those influences together and make one new music out of all that that was indigenous to this area, that comes from here in Southern California and the desert. There were six of us that all started the group together in 1974 and we still play together. We have a lot of different pieces, but basically it's rhythm music. Sometimes there's odd groupings – John Bergamo has written a lot of pieces that are very like Frank's music in some ways.

We recorded an album for CMP in 1987 and we're still waiting for it to come out. It's only been nine years, but we're hoping it will come out, but CMP move very slowly. It's all improvisation. We think it's the best thing we've recorded yet. There's actually been a lot recorded since then but that was a good recording. There also have a second album called 'Souvenirs of the Year 2000' which is completely improvisation with sounds and then Walter Quintus, the CMP engineer, was doing effects to the sounds at once, so it's all these groups going and sounds of space and different things. That was recorded in 1986 and we're hoping it will be released soon. CMP have the rights to that stuff because we recorded it there and we don't do that any more, so it means they can release it when they want. They have to be focussed, but they haven't been focussed around this. I don't think they're really waiting for the right time; I think they're just not clear on what they're doing. Usually everything they record they release, because otherwise they don't make their money back. That's usually enough to motivate them to release stuff. I don't like playing the Repercussion Unit music, stuff that's been recorded. That was ten years ago and the feeling of it is not where I'm coming from. But I like to get together with the band when we're just improvising and making new music right in that moment. That's a lot of fun.

Q: What about the solo stuff?

EM: That stuff was a long time ago, I don't remember a whole lot about it. I was in a completely different place. The reason why I was writing music at that time was not the same reason that I do music right now. I hope some people liked it and it made them happy. There's no [life] in the feeling for me. I can't really relate to that stuff any more. I would never do music like that again. I have to just keep moving forward. When I listen to that stuff, it doesn't really do for me what the new material does. There was something about it that was good, but it was a difficult time in my life. I was going through a divorce and I was away from my son. So the music, especially 'Perfect World', reflects some of that difficulty. The new stuff is reflective of moving past that.

Q: When did you first meet Frank?

EM: 1973 or 74. Nothing happened. John Bergamo was playing in an ensemble and I was there with him and I just kinda said hello. He walked past me in an alley. I was learning percussion and a little keyboard. I studied percussion with teachers at school and then I went to college. I guess I learnt to play mostly by just playing in bands: rock bands as a drummer, jazz bands, and then jazz mallets, like vibes, and then percussion ensemble music which was John Cage and so on. Modern classical. I never really liked that stuff. There's no feeling in it for me. It's so cold and so mental. It was a good way to learn the instrument in terms of being able to execute things that are a challenge, but in terms of music is there music there? It's OK, but for me there's no heart. It's just so clinical, you know. I only played hat stuff in as much as it was interesting to me, and then I really moved beyond. I actually spent more time playing music from south India than doing that other stuff.

I've played Varèse's 'Ionisation' hundreds of times – I love it. That's the other thing too. You can like these pieces, but it's a matter of what you choose to do as a musician. If you're going to dedicate your life to getting that piece better and better and now you're the best player of that piece, and every time you play it, it's basically the same – and for me that was the breaking off point where I lost interest. I like to do it every time new and different. That means that learning people's compositions is limited.

Q: So how did you end up playing with Frank?

EM: I met him through John later on. We went to record on 'The Black Page' with Ruth Underwood. John, Ruth and myself played the overdubs. Two months later, I joined Frank's band. That piece was difficult then, but now it's easy. Now everyone plays it. I was at a music school doing music therapy work and I was walking the hallway and heard two marimba players practising 'The Black Page'. This was last year, just out of nowhere. It was funny. I played mostly mallet instruments with Frank.

Q: What about 'Mo'n Herb's Vacation'? Someone said it was ten times more difficult than 'The Black Page'.

EM: It is. I would agree. It was originally written as a solo piece for marimba and also for clarinet, both the same part, where you play the entire melody by yourself. So when you play it that way, as a solo piece, it's many times harder. We played it one time live with Vinnie and Arthur Barrow but we were reading the music. It's not correct really. The stage lights were on red and purple and it was a rock and roll show as we tried to read the music. It was the first or second time sightreading it. It's kind of right, but it's not really right. I learnt the piece afterwards and Chad and I played it a number of times, just drums and marimba. We played it in a clinic then at a concert that I put together.

I love the piece in a certain way but I can also hear the difficulty in it. I can hear the conflict. I used to enjoy it, not for the conflict, but for the tonality that Frank would get into for its brilliance. But now I can't listen to it because I hear the conflict. Maybe I love it but I don't like it, I don't know. I love Frank, but I don't enjoy hearing that piece. The conflict is just built into the music, the way the phrases go, the tonalities and the rhythms. The whole piece is about conflict anyway because it's written about a conflict Frank was having with his managers and the record company guy. He found out later on that they had ripped off some money from him and he was pissed off and wrote a piece about it. It's about his manager Herb Cohen and Mo Ostin from Warner Brothers who didn't pay him some royalties and then went and took this vacation in Spain or somewhere. They said in theory they were there doing business for the record, but what they were really doing was having a vacation with girls and this whole thing. Somehow he brought it up in his lawsuit with Warner Brothers and also suing his ex-manager. So many of the Zappa fans know everything, they know more than there is to know; they know more than even exists. A lot of them know because Frank had publicised this stuff. He used his music to publicise his legal problems.

Technically, there's a lot of passages where the notes are going very fast, at thirty-second note speed, and there's interval jumps of ninths and elevenths all in a row, all up and down. A lot of things from a marimba point of view are almost impossible because you have to be in two places at once, operating like four hands. The way that I used to learn the piece was to take everything apart very slowly, learn one section at a time and gradually put it together. The feeling of it is two ways. There's kind of a certain legato feeling in a lot of the phrasing, but the pitches and the tonality are all torn apart. There's nothing cohesive. There's none of the strong tonalities that Frank would use in his anthems. It's all very disjointed. You can feel the anger in it.

Q: One contemporary composer said that it reminded him of Stravinsky's 'Ebony Concerto'.

EM: I don't know the 'Ebony Concerto' well enough to compare. Rhythmically what it's about, there's two different rhythmic aspects to it. There's what it looks like on paper and the way that you count it out to perform it, and then there's the way that it sounds. The way it sounds is that there's a lot of ornamentation on the phrases and a lot of density in the phrases so that you don't hear the notes. It just becomes like a curve or a texture almost. It's almost like Penderecki, a single part from a Penderecki piece. Well, not really, but if you had to compare it to something else. The way it looks on paper is a lot like Stravinsky. It feels like Stravinsky when you're feeling the meters and finding a way to play it. The time changes may be 11/16, 5/8, 3/8, but within that 11/16, there's maybe three quarter notes, so it's all phrased over the thing anyway. You're feeling in eleven so you can play three over it and meanwhile who knows anyway. By the time you're done, it just sounds like three. But then in relationship to what happens next, you never get the feeling that it has momentum and that you can grab onto it, that you know where it goes from one place to the next. It has a beautiful feel to it, melodically a middle eastern feel. I think it was one of the first pieces that I know of Frank's when he began to really explore that middle eastern feel that he developed later on in his guitar solos.

Q: What about 'Sinister Footwear'?

EM: That came at about the same time in 1981 and 1982. It's a nice piece. Most of Frank's stuff, from that period and onwards, there's some coldness in it, something that's conflicted, even the beautiful stuff. It doesn't have the same feeling as some of the earlier music. Things like 'The Black Page' has a certain sort of strength and resolve to it, harmonically, that brought a feeling of hope. Later pieces brought a feeling of hopelessness.

Q: How was your audition with Frank?

EM: It happened at two o'clock in the morning up at his house, and Patrick O'Hearn and Adrian Belew were both there. He just put some stuff up and asked me to read it which I did as well as I could, and then we improvised and played by ear, then he asked me to join the band and then I brought in Tommy Mars. Most of the other auditions I saw were for drummers and they were a completely different thing. There were so many drummers and it was a different kind of event for Frank. I think he enjoyed auditioning drummers. I never saw another audition like that. Steve Vai's entrance to the band was maybe more similar. Vai wasn't part of a big audition. Every audition was kind of unique. People would come into the band for different reasons. Ike auditioned backstage at St Louis and Warren auditioned just by hanging around for so long.

Q: Your audition wasn't horrible? There are plenty of horror stories from auditions.

EM: Mine was a lot of fun. I would never want to be a drummer and do one of those kind of auditions because I don't have that kind of personality, to be able to hold up under that kind of pressure.

Q: What was the most difficult stuff you did for Frank? Would it have been the classical music?

EM: It wasn't really difficult. It's just the biggest challenge to put it all together and try to cover as much sound as possible just being one percussionist in the band and make it all happen live, make sure that you can get to it all in time, that the gong mallet is in place so that when you're finished with the xylophone lick, you can get to it quickly enough to hit it. Chorography was perhaps the biggest challenge. Then a little smaller was the challenge of playing the music, just getting the notes right.

Q: Which was your favourite of the Zappa tours?

EM: Probably the first one, 1977. The first one is always the most fun. It's magic then and it was a great band. That particular band was great and the music we were doing still felt really original. It was written for that band. Every other tour after that, there was some stuff written for the band but there was also a lot of stuff from the past and a lot of the stuff was beautiful, but for me to play 'Inca Roads' or 'Rollo' or something, Ruth was the one that originated the piece, so it was always going to be bringing the feeling of the band who realised it. And that's the best thing to do. It's like if you're going out to play someone else's music in a way. But the 1977 band, all of that music was written just for it and in fact a lot of it was never played after that band, except 'Black Page' and maybe some others.

Q: For many fans, the 1988 tour was the best.

EM: It depends what you like. I might not like what someone else likes. I like the feeling of it; someone else might like the complexity of the musical arrangements and the diversity. The 1988 knew more material than any other band. It was something like eleven and a half hours of material that was memorised. I don't know if that band ended in catastrophe, but it obviously wasn't a good experience for anybody.

Q: What's your idea of music and developing that talent? (inaudible question)

EM: Sound; start with sound and then listen to what the sound tells you to play and then play it. There has to be a loop between the ear and the heart and the hands where you're just feeling it and hearing it and trying to get to the place where you're not thinking about it, where it just happens by itself. So it's not really trying, it's actually letting go. Become involved and let go and let the music play itself. Then usually amazing things can come out.

The 'Global Warming' CD is all improvisation. The way I approach it from percussion is that there's all these different sounds, and each one of these sounds has a different song that it wants to play. If you put them together, they start to influence each other. So for me, the most important thing about improvisation and being a percussionist is exactly that. It's about bringing the music out of these sounds. Frank tried to do it, but with guitar, drums, keyboard and bass all going, you can only access ten percent of the range of sound that's available from percussion. If you get rid of all that stuff and you have only percussion, then you have the other ninety per cent of sound and it's incredible. Frank accessed that kind of stuff more than most composers that work in western tonal music. But I'm actually happy now to be doing stuff that does away with electronics, here you can hear the sound of these instruments.

Q: What kind of solos did you get to play with Frank?

EM: In parts of the 1988 tour, we did group improvisations where the whole band was playing a solo. I liked that. As for solo solos, I never really felt happy about it because it's just too much sound for me to get over and play on top of. We did some stuff with electric vibes and combining the sounds, but for me it was easier to function in that music as realising part of Frank's vision than expressing myself within it. My expression of myself is what I brought to the sense of orchestration as it's seen through Frank's lens. When it became time to solo, the feeling of the band was much too heavy and guitar-oriented and seriously loud and electric for me to feel I could ever get in a place where I liked it and to develop it on top. There was just too much pushing and agressive feeling. It always felt tight, trying to get louder than the next person.

What we started to do in the end was bring it down to just bass and drums, and then some interesting stuff started to work. I liked soloing away from it, playing in a smaller quieter context that has different kinds of sound around it. By 1988, I'd kind of figured out that rather than trying to bring that feeling into Frank's band of what I would do, it was easier to approach it strictly as soloing within the arrangement and orchestration and letting the sound be the expression, rather than whatever's going on as my expression of my experience in the world. That wasn't the place for it.

Plus, the other big thing amongst the musicians was 'Where's my solo? Do I get a solo here?' There's this whole mentality of score-keeping and it used to drive me crazy. If you start to think that way, then it meant you're engaged and you're attached to it, you're holding on. And there's no way that the vibes or the marimba in that situation are going to get louder than Frank or Tommy Mars. It's just pure volume that rocks the house. So if you tried to do it with instruments that weren't appropriate, I never really enjoyed it. I'd rather just be there and bring the music out through the sounds.

Q: Did you ever see Frank after that tour? Were you waiting for the phone call.

EM: No. I knew what he was doing, that 'Yellow Shark' thing. He was doing these things in Europe. It was kind of [clear] that it was time to do the chamber stuff, and if he didn't do it then, he wouldn't do it and that was what that time period was about. At the end of 1988, it was really clear to me that it was [time] me to do other things than play Frank's music.

Q: Do you do much music for films and so on?

EM: Not really. I'm just working on my own recordings. There's a bunch of stuff to be released this year, stuff that I record here in this room and it's all percussion music. I'm not really interested in being a film composer. I'm just interested in doing the music that I'm hearing. and bring it out first as music and then whatever happens to it is fine. I've just been focussing on that. A lot of it has just to do with sound. It's been a time period for me, the last three years, when I've specifically been wanting to be away from organised music. I don't want to play in anybody's band, especially since we did that Banned from Utopia. For me, that was the big message that it was absolutely time to do what was going on in my own head otherwise you spend your time doing other people's music and every time you do it, you become immersed in their music, So I wanted to create this time record, just completely get away from music, and the only music that's going to come, let it be in here and record it in the room. Just the music of that moment, that doesn't require getting the drum sound and problems over solos and all that stuff. This music is more about single notes and simple things, sounds that have to make you feel good first. If it feels good, then the music can come out afterwards. For me the most important thing is that it feels right, it feels good. So I've been taking this and doing work with music therapists, doing workshops.

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